Defunding the Police: A Bad Catchphrase for a Good Idea

  • author Mark Nestmann
  • calendar March 30, 2021

George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis cop last May rekindled a debate over policing that’s been simmering for years. And, like everything else in our hyper-partisan society, it’s also become a profoundly politicized topic.

At one extreme are groups like #8toAbolition, which call for the literal abolition of police, because “At its root, policing and prisons are systems designed to uphold oppression … In abolishing policing, we seek to abolish imperialist forms of police, such as militaries responsible for generations of violence against black and brown people worldwide.”

On the other extreme are commentators like Fox’s Tucker Carlson, who accuse police defunding proponents of wanting to destroy society itself. “Chaos was the whole point of it,” Carlson said last summer in reaction to the violent protests after Floyd’s death. “More rape, more robbery, more murder … Those were the intended consequences.”

Support for Carson’s view seemed to come from Ariel Atkins, a Black Lives Matter organizer who equates looting to reparations. “I don’t care if somebody decides to loot a Gucci or a Macy’s or a Nike store because that makes sure that person eats. That makes sure that person has clothes. That is reparations,” she said. 

It also came in Seattle. Repeated attacks against law enforcement by protestors last June in the Capitol Hill neighborhood led Mayor Jenny Durkan to order police to leave the area. That set the stage for what became known as the “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone,” or CHAZ.

It didn’t go over well. The New York Times reported "roving bands of masked protesters smashing windows and looting … young white men wielding guns.” After a month of near anarchy, Mayor Durkan sent police back into Capitol Hill to restore order.

Can these views be reconciled? We believe they must be, as the current system is both deeply flawed and unnecessarily oppressive.

The system is flawed because most violent and (especially) property crimes in America are never solved. In 2019, police nationwide cleared 45.5% of reported violent crimes and 17.2% of reported property crimes. What’s more, the Supreme Court has ruled that police have no obligation under federal law to protect private citizens from criminal attacks. Most states also have laws in effect forbidding lawsuits against governmental units such as police departments or officers themselves, for failing to provide adequate police protection. Indeed, police can legally (and routinely do) ignore emergency calls from victims of crime.

And it’s oppressive because the United States has by far the largest per capita incarceration rate in the world. One-quarter of the world’s prisoners languish in US prisons. As well, the incarceration rate for Hispanic Americans is nearly double that for whites. For Blacks, it’s more than five times higher. Additionally, about 50% of those incarcerated in America’s prisons are non-violent offenders.

Fortunately, there are ways forward. They won’t satisfy everyone but will likely both improve the effectiveness of police in solving crimes and reduce mass incarceration.

The example of Camden, NJ is a case in point. In 2012, Camden disbanded its police force, firing hundreds of officers. Those who wanted to continue working as law enforcement were required to reapply as county employees and submit to new training and psychological evaluations. Since then, violent crime in the city has dropped 42%.

Supporters of the “defund the police” narrative applauded the move because it literally abolished the local police. Conservatives liked it too, because rehiring the former cops as county employees saved almost $90,000 per officer. Indeed, the idea for abolishing the Camden police department came from then-Republican governor Chris Christie. Moreover, the drop in Camden’s crime rate meant big savings in the state’s prison system, since the average cost to house an inmate in New Jersey exceeds $50,000 per year.

Getting conservatives to support police reform is crucial because it’s unlikely to happen without their approval. Focusing on both the ineffectiveness of the current system, combined with the massive expense in perpetuating the status quo, will be key to gathering their support.

But there’s a lot that can be done to improve the criminal justice system without a literal abolition of police departments. For instance, nine out of 10 calls for police assistance are for nonviolent encounters, many of which involve mentally ill, addicted, and/or homeless people. Reallocating monies away from police departments to provide social services to these individuals could be a better use of taxpayer dollars. “Reallocation” or “reform” is also a much less politically charged word than “defund.”

But reallocating budgets and reforming police training won’t be enough for the more radical adherents of the “defund” movement. One way to appeal to them would be to abolish the odious legal doctrine of “qualified immunity.” This is a rule the Supreme Court established in 1982 to shield police and other government workers from lawsuits unless their actions are contrary to "clearly established" law.

Over the years, courts have liberally construed qualified immunity rules. In one case, a federal appeals court upheld qualified immunity to a police officer who ran a car off the road, then walked up to the vehicle and fired his gun three times at point-blank range, killing the driver. Another federal appeals court concluded that a Colorado social worker who strip-searched and photographed a four-year-old girl without a warrant was entitled to qualified immunity. A third federal appeals court granted it to officers who released a police dog on a burglary suspect who was sitting on the ground surrendering with his hands in the air.

But what if you’re faced with a genuine emergency and police don’t respond due to concerns they’ll be held accountable for a mistake in judgment? That’s a legitimate apprehension and still would be even if qualified immunity were abolished. After all, there are no state or federal laws holding police accountable for failing to protect private citizens from criminal attacks.

That’s unlikely to change anytime soon, which means you must rely on yourself in these circumstances. Fortunately, there’s a relatively simple way to protect yourself: buy a gun, learn how to use it, and keep it close to you in case you’re attacked.

The bottom line is that as a society, we’ve become accustomed to the idea that the only way to fight crime is to grant police officers the authority to violate our rights with impunity and lock up offenders in cages for decades. We can’t imagine any other way other than harsh policing and sentencing to fight crime.

But there is a way forward, if we combine reallocation of police budgets with cost-containment measures and the elimination of qualified immunity. Let’s hope it happens sooner rather than later.

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